Tag Archives: vouchers

Footing The Bill For Proselytizing

The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette has reported on Indiana’s school voucher program–the largest such program in the United States–and has followed that report with a wider-ranging, scathing editorial listing additional issues with the program.

The newspaper’s revelations didn’t surprise those of us who have been watching what I can only call “the voucher scam.” Whatever the motives of the people who originally supported these programs–and I know that some of them were sincerely trying to improve educational opportunities for poor children– vouchers have become the weapon of choice for theocrats who have long felt threatened by public education.

As the article notes,

Taxpayers in Indiana are footing the bill for student scholarships to schools that push ultraconservative and sometimes bigoted viewpoints.

More than 30 private schools participating in Indiana’s school voucher program use textbooks from companies that teach homosexuality as immoral, environmentalism as spiritually bankrupt and evolution as an evil idea.

Of the 318 private schools participating in Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program – a voucher program that uses public funding to help students afford private schools – 36 use at least one textbook or piece of curriculum created by either Abeka or Bob Jones University Press.

The reporters checked the websites of 131 Christian schools that participate in Indiana’s “Choice” program, looking for details about their curricula. If a school didn’t have a website, or the information on the site was inadequate, they reached out via phone and email. Most failed to respond.

Who are Abeka and Bob Jones University Press? How do their textbooks compare with standard classroom materials?

Abeka, a textbook company, is affiliated with Pensacola Christian College, a far-right religious university in Florida that bans “dancing” and “satanic practices” in its code of conduct. Bob Jones University Press is affiliated with its eponymous university, which outlawed interracial dating until the year 2000.

According to education scholars, the textbooks produced by Abeka and Bob Jones are filled with inaccurate history and distorted science. A  historian is quoted in the article saying that the history texts don’t teach anything “that could accurately be called history;” instead, she said, “They are essentially proselytizing for Protestant Christianity.”

In a middle school American history textbook published by Abeka, titled “America: Land I Love,” Satan is blamed for the spread of the theory of evolution and modern psychology, according to a book procured by HuffPost.

A high school world history textbook from Bob Jones University Press also pushes falsehoods and stereotypes. One chapter asserts that it was Jewish religious leaders who plotted to kill Jesus Christ, a myth that has long been used to fuel anti-Semitic sentiment.

Of the 318 schools that currently participate in Indiana’s voucher program, more than 95 percent are explicitly religious. According to the Journal Gazette’s calculations, at least 4,240 children receiving vouchers funded by tax dollars attend schools that use the Abeka or Bob Jones’ textbooks.

Of course, not all participating schools use these texts, and some 34,000 students have now participated in Indiana’s voucher program, so it is only fair to consider how they are doing overall. After all, voucher programs have now been around long enough to be evaluated.

The news isn’t good.

The research simply doesn’t support the rosy claims made by proponents. In Indiana, studies show that children using vouchers have an average annual loss of 0.10 standard deviations in mathematics when compared to comparable public school students; that same research found no statistically meaningful difference in reading.  Research from other states has yielded even more disappointing results.

These schools may be bringing children to Jesus, but they aren’t improving their educations.

So–let’s sum up what we know: Significant resources are being diverted from Indiana’s struggling public schools in order to send funds to private religious schools that do not improve children’s performance in reading, and significantly worsen their performance in math. An indeterminate number of those schools substitute extremist religious indoctrination for accurate instruction in history and science.

This is the Mike Pence “model” that Betsy DeVos wants to replicate nationwide.

These are your tax dollars at work.

Pence: Black Is White

National media outlets report that Mike Pence is again touting the virtues of “school choice.” Evidently, in the alternate reality that he and Betsy DeVos inhabit, vouchers and other “choice” programs are working wonderfully.

The evidence suggests otherwise–unless by “working,” they mean subsidizing religious schools and benefitting business’ bottom line.

Two recent reports, one from the Washington Post and another, lengthy investigation from the New York Times, convincingly rebut Pence’s sunny view of these programs. The Post article begins with the contrast between Pence’s reality and the one the rest of us inhabit:

The Trump administration has made the District’s federally mandated school voucher program Exhibit A in its campaign to allow public funds to flow to private schools. Vice President Pence has called the 13-year-old D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program a “case study in school choice success.”

In truth, the performance of the D.C. voucher program calls into question the wisdom of spending upward of $200 million in federal tax money on private schooling in a city where students already have many educational choices. And it’s a cautionary tale of how badly crafted voucher initiatives can hurt the very students they’re designed to help.

The article details “disappointing” student achievement, poor oversight, and a lack of available information that would allow parents to make informed choices. As a result, significant numbers of eligible families turn down the vouchers.

The Times article is a lengthy, detailed look at Betsy DeVos’ home state of Michigan, and its embrace of for-profit charter schools.

Michigan’s aggressively free-market approach to schools has resulted in one of the most deregulated educational environments in the country, a laboratory in which consumer choice and a shifting landscape of supply and demand (and profit motive, in the case of many charters) were pitched as ways to improve life in the classroom for the state’s 1.5 million public-school students. But a Brookings Institution analysis done this year of national test scores ranked Michigan last among all states when it came to improvements in student proficiency. And a 2016 analysis by the Education Trust-Midwest, a nonpartisan education policy and research organization, found that 70 percent of Michigan charters were in the bottom half of the state’s rankings. Michigan has the most for-profit charter schools in the country and some of the least state oversight. Even staunch charter advocates have blanched at the Michigan model.

The article makes an important point: it’s impossible to understand what happened in  Michigan’s schools unless you recognize that for-profit schools aren’t in the business of education; they are in the business of business.  These charters have become “potential financial assets to outside entities, inevitably complicating their broader social missions.”

The key phrase in the above paragraph is “broader social mission.” Unlike voucher schools, which are private and inevitably siphon resources from the public system, it is possible to operate charters successfully as options within a public school system. I would argue, however, that (a) the use of for-profit entities to manage such schools is incompatible with their social mission, and (b) strict oversight by and accountability to the relevant school board is essential.

The reason we call them public schools is because they serve a critical public function.

In the absence of any credible evidence that privatizing our schools improves either educational or civic outcomes, we should direct our energies–and our tax dollars–to improving our public systems.

 

 

 

 

 

It Really Isn’t About the Quality of Education

No one who watched Mike Pence dramatically expand Indiana’s voucher program at the expense of the state’s public schools, and certainly no one who has followed the appointment and appalling performance of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, could come away thinking “Boy, those people really care about education!”

Despite their rhetoric, Pence, DeVos and a number of other proponents of “educational choice” have a decidedly religious agenda. DeVos has been quoted as saying that vouchers will usher in “God’s kingdom.” Pence’s voucher program hasn’t improved educational outcomes, but it has financially benefitted the religious schools that participate.

And the religious schools that do participate in Indiana’s voucher program have seen to it that some children don’t even have that much-touted “choice.” As Chalkbeat recently reported,

When it comes to school choice, options are more limited for Indiana’s LGBT students.

Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington recently made headlines for promising students an excellent, “biblically integrated” education — unless they identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The school also received more than $650,000 in public funds last year through the state’s voucher program.

In Indiana, over 34,299 students used vouchers to attend a private school last fall, making it the largest such program in the country. It’s also a program that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has applauded — which means Indiana offers a helpful glimpse at how a DeVos-led national expansion of vouchers might shape up.

Our investigation found that roughly one in 10 of Indiana’s voucher schools publicly shares a policy suggesting or declaring that LGBT students are not welcome. Together, the 27 schools received over $16 million in public funds for participating last year.

Many private, religious schools are also accredited by a group that provides advice about how to turn away LGBT students. Given that nearly 20 percent of schools do not publicize their admissions policies, the true number of schools with anti-LGBT policies is unclear.

Of the 27 schools with explicitly anti-LGBT policies, 14 were accredited by the Association of Christian Schools International, a pro school-choice group that provides its members with a handbook titled “Steps Your School Can Take When Dealing With Homosexual Issues.”

The Chalkbeat article quotes religious school officials who stress the importance of respecting the religious views of schools operated by different denominations. I have no quarrel with respecting their right to teach their beliefs; I do have a quarrel with their right to have those beliefs subsidized with my tax dollars.

In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the Supreme Court ruled that vouchers to religious schools did not violate the religion clauses of the First Amendment, because the vouchers (theoretically) went to the parents, who were free to use them at either religious or secular schools. The problem with this approach is the same as the problem facing gay children in Indiana: the “choice” is illusory, because virtually all of the participating schools are religious.

Charter schools–which are still public schools– manage to operate while being subject to the same constitutional and civil rights constraints that apply to traditional public schools. There’s no reason that private schools–religious or not– that benefit from voucher dollars shouldn’t be required to do likewise.

Of course, at some point, Hoosiers are going to have to face up to the fact that although vouchers do not improve student’s test scores, they certainly do improve the bottom lines of participating religious schools.

Despite being marketed as a way to give parents a “choice” to enroll their children in “better” schools, Indiana’s vouchers are simply a financial windfall for religious schools at the expense of our public schools. And if a few LGBTQ kids face discrimination, well that’s just too bad.

It certainly doesn’t bother DeVos and Pence.

Don’t Confuse Her With Evidence….

Students at one of America’s historically Black colleges recently booed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who had (inexplicably) been invited to deliver the graduation speech. Many of the graduates also turned their backs when she spoke.

This behavior was rude–but it was understandable.

Like most of Trump’s Cabinet, DeVos is manifestly unfit for public office. She is an ideologue in the Pence tradition; a theocrat with a rigid and limited worldview who has demonstrated a lack of engagement with, let alone understanding of, the issues that face the department she’s been tapped to head.

DeVos has been a “Betsy One-Note,” focused on voucher programs that despite misleading rhetoric, actually replace public schools with religious ones. She insists that private schools do a better job, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. As the New York Times recently reported,

The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education was a signal moment for the school choice movement. For the first time, the nation’s highest education official is someone fully committed to making school vouchers and other market-oriented policies the centerpiece of education reform.

But even as school choice is poised to go national, a wave of new research has emerged suggesting that private school vouchers may harm students who receive them. The results are startling — the worst in the history of the field, researchers say.

Voucher advocacy has gradually become part of GOP ideology, and as Republicans have assumed power in the states, voucher programs have expanded–especially in Indiana. That expansion has allowed researchers to make comparisons that had been less reliable when there were fewer schools to compare, and the results of that research began to emerge in late 2015.

Here are some of those research findings–conclusions that would make an intellectually honest educator revisit her preconceptions:

The first results came in late 2015. Researchers examined an Indiana voucher program that had quickly grown to serve tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state’s governor. “In mathematics,” they found, “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement.” They also saw no improvement in reading.

The next results came a few months later, in February, when researchers published a major study of Louisiana’s voucher program. Students in the program were predominantly black and from low-income families, and they came from public schools that had received poor ratings from the state department of education, based on test scores. For private schools receiving more applicants than they could enroll, the law required that they admit students via lottery, which allowed the researchers to compare lottery winners with those who stayed in public school.

They found large negative results in both reading and math. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.

This is very unusual. When people try to improve education, sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. The successes usually register as modest improvements, while the failures generally have no effect at all. It’s rare to see efforts to improve test scores having the opposite result. Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls the negative effects in Louisiana “as large as any I’ve seen in the literature” — not just compared with other voucher studies, but in the history of American education research.

It is important to note that these results come from voucher proponents as well as voucher skeptics. As the Times article noted,

In June, a third voucher study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice. The study, which was financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,” the researchers found. Once again, results were worse in math.

DeVos has been an outspoken opponent of even minimal efforts to regulate schools that accept vouchers, but it has become clear that such regulation is necessary and salutary:

The new voucher studies stand in marked contrast to research findings that well-regulated charter schools in Massachusetts and elsewhere have a strong, positive impact on test scores. But while vouchers and charters are often grouped under the umbrella of “school choice,” the best charters tend to be nonprofit public schools, open to all and accountable to public authorities. The less “private” that school choice programs are, the better they seem to work.

If DeVos has seen these studies or addressed their findings, I haven’t seen it reported.

Betsy DeVos is certainly entitled to live in her own alternate universe. What she isn’t entitled to is a public position that allows her to inflict considerable damage on the rest of us.

Taxes and Religion

Last week, the Indianapolis Star did something called “journalism.” (These episodes have become sufficiently rare that we should applaud loudly when they occur. I’m clapping.)

Snark aside, the Star followed the money, in this case, our tax dollars, which are flowing ever more generously to Indiana’s parochial schools. And as the introductory paragraphs made clear, these are schools that take both their religious identity and religious instruction seriously.

At Colonial Christian, an Indianapolis school on the northeast side that receives public funds through Indiana’s private school voucher program, students are warned they can be kicked out of school for “promoting a homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity.”

At even more voucher-accepting schools, families are required to sign statements of faith as a condition of enrollment, affirming that they hold the same religious beliefs and values as the school.

Theology classes are required for four years at Bishop Chatard High School, as are hours performing service and outreach. And some schools, including Bethesda Christian in Brownsburg, require a recommendation by a pastor.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having religiously-based private education available to parents who want their children educated in such environments. Whether that education should be paid for with tax dollars, however, is a different question.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled several years ago that voucher programs could  pass constitutional muster, despite the Establishment Clause, because the voucher (theoretically) was issued to the parents, and those parents could (again, theoretically) choose either a secular or religious school.

When Indiana’s Supreme Court was faced with specific language in the state constitution that seemed to foreclose the federal evasion, Indiana’s Court nevertheless opted to follow the same “logic.” (So much for “originalism” and “textual” analysis, which–had either of those purported judicial approaches actually been applied–would have required a different outcome.)

The Star’s article on religious schools’ participation in the state’s voucher program was the fourth in a series on Indiana’s voucher program, a program that was “grown” by former Governor Pence to be the largest in the country. Pence–like Betsy DeVos– was clear about his intent to privilege religious education, and neither of them seems troubled by the constant stream of research showing that children using vouchers do more poorly in English and math than children from similar backgrounds who attend public schools.

In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of vouchers, the majority indulged in an abstract–and intellectually dishonest– exercise: the pretense that the voucher went to the parents (it is my understanding that, while the parents choose the ultimate recipient, they never touch the money), and –far more consequently–that the parents are free to choose from among religious or secular private schools. The “facts on the ground” are otherwise; almost all of the nonpublic schools accepting vouchers are religious, and those that are not tend to be geared to special populations: children with disabilities or behavioral issues or the like.

Let’s be honest, at least. Vouchers are support for religious education, and the quotations from parents in the Star article underscore the reality that most parents opting for vouchers do so because they want to send their children to a religious school.

So–back to my original question: why should taxpayers who believe in science and the importance of science education pay for children to attend schools that teach creationism (one of the administrators interviewed insisted that opposition to the “theory” of evolution was essential to his school’s approach)? Why should taxes paid by LGBTQ citizens and their allies be used to send children to schools that proselytize against “homosexual lifestyles”? Why should tax dollars be diverted from a public school system that serves all children and sent to schools that are unaccountable to those taxpayers and that research tells us are not providing an equivalent education?

I remain convinced that the Court in Zelman got it wrong–on both the law and the facts. But even if vouchers are constitutionally acceptable, they fail any reasonable test for what constitutes good public policy. If Americans want to promote alternative educational approaches and parental choice, there are ways to do that within the public system; charter schools, for example, are still public schools, with (among other things) an obligation to teach science and abide by the Bill of Rights.

The Star has illustrated what many educators already know: Indiana’s voucher program is an effort to circumvent the Establishment Clause’s prohibition on government funding for religion.

Educational outcomes are incidental.